Detroit Tigers: The Case for Moving Mike Pelfrey to the Bullpen

Mar 2, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA;Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey (37) looks on during the second inning against the New York Yankees at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 2, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA;Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey (37) looks on during the second inning against the New York Yankees at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Detroit Tigers starter Mike Pelfrey has gotten off to a rough start. After seeing many top relievers make the switch to the bullpen from the rotation, it could be time for Pelfrey to explore a similar transition.

Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey is performing terribly in 2016. It is no secret, many fans were upset with the signing of Pelfrey during the off-season. A former Minnesota Twin and New York Met, Pelfrey was signed to a two-year, $16M deal in December 2015.

Fast forward to April and Pelfrey is pitching a little bit differently than many Tigers fans remember him. After serving up a ton of pitches up in the zone and showing an inability to find the strike zone consistently it may be time for Pelfrey to convert to a relief role.

Mike Pelfrey pitched four games last season against the Tigers for Minnesota. The then Twins starter was surprisingly effective in his four appearances, posting a 3.70 ERA with a SO9 of seven and a batting average against of .281.

While these numbers may not be eye popping they are much better than the stats Pelfrey is currently compiling. Pelfrey’s struggles include a 4.64 ERA, with 12 walks and only nine strike outs in his four starts entering Sunday. The patience of many Tigers fans is growing thin and rightfully so.

Justin Verlander has a high ERA but has given up no more than three runs in all but one of his starts. Jordan Zimmermann is 5-0 with a 0.55 ERA and the Justin Wilson just completed his twelfth consecutive scoreless appearance. Things seem to look good for the Tigers pitchers in 2016. Everyone other than Mike Pelfrey that is.

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Standing at 6’7″ tall, Mike Pelfrey is a tall drink of water. It is uncommon to see a ground ball pitcher like Pelfrey have the ability to throw 94-plus miles per hour late in games. Pelfrey’s large frame naturally allows him to throw harder, so one would have to believe he might have some untapped velocity.

Everyone remembers Justin Verlander‘s 2012 All-Star game start when he got knocked around in the first inning because he felt he was able to let loose rather than pacing himself for a full start. The same is true for relievers who naturally throw harder than starters due in part to their lessened work load. Having Mike Pelfrey face less batters can only benefit the Tigers and relying on him for three outs instead of 15-27 outs might result in an increase to his velocity. Pelfrey has touched 95 mph this season and has hit 97 mph in seasons past. 

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Many of the game’s great relievers were once starters. Zach Britton, Wade Davis, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller are four of the games top relievers who were once marginal starters at the big league level.

Fire-balling closer Aroldis Chapman was a starter in Cuba and in the Cincinnati Reds minor league system before developing into one of the league’s best closers. Even though his name makes Tigers fans cringe, John  Smoltz came back from injury in 2001 and spent four years closing games for the Atlanta Braves.

Even the game’s all-time saves leader Mariano Rivera started 10 games for the Yankees in 1995 before spending the next 18 seasons as the baseballs best closer. Of course these are some of the greats, and it is no guarantee Mike Pelfrey would turn into one of these players just by converting to a reliever, but there have been many who did so successfully.

Pelfrey may be forced into a demotion to the bullpen. The Tigers certainly have other options should the former Met be switched to a relief role. Daniel Norris pitched five rehab starts and could be ready for a return to Detroit at any time. His numbers in Lakeland and Toledo aren’t amazing but after getting hurt in spring training it could be likely that Norris is working on some things.

Detroit Tigers
Mar 14, 2016; Lakeland, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Daniel Norris (44) throws during the first inning of a spring training baseball game against the New York Mets at Joker Marchant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports /

This would also explain the extended amount of time he has spent rehabbing. Norris is 0-2 with a 6.16 ERA and 21 strikeouts at both Single-A and Triple-A this season. Unlike Norris, Tigers lefty Matt Boyd made an appearance for Detroit this season, pitching 4 2/3 of two-hit, no-run baseball.

Even Shane Greene seems to be a better option for the rotation at this point. Though Greene has not pitched well this season, he did have one positive start against Pittsburgh earlier this season. Greene is currently battling a blister issue and was replaced in the rotation by the Tigers consensus top prospect Michael Fulmer. Fulmer looked impressive in his major league debut going five innings and surrendering only two runs while featuring a power fastball and a nasty slider.

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There are many options better than Mike Pelfrey for the starting rotation. Even if the bullpen is not the cure for Pelfrey, it may just be better to see less of him. Unfortunately the Tigers inked Pelfrey to a two year deal so fans will have to continue to watch these starts until the end of the 2017 season, barring a release or trade of the veteran righty. If general manager Al Avila can find a team willing to take Pelfrey, it may go down as his best move yet.